The two-way mirror is a magical thing.
You know what I mean: the type of mirror the cops use in interrogation rooms. On one side, the bad guy. On the other side, “the man” observing human behavior.
We had a couple of these magic mirrors in the child protection office where I worked.
We used them primarily to supervise parent visitation with their children. The layout was one observation room with two mirrors on adjacent walls and two attached visitation rooms. The door to the observation room was separate from the doors to the rooms. Like this:
A small child would have no clue we were there.
Parents did have a clue because we told them. I’m not sure about the employees. Not everyone was tasked with using the observation rooms, but everyone knew why they were there. Most days, the supervision was uneventful. Parents were on their best behavior and they awkwardly interacted with their children in an unnatural environment. We noted the parents’ skills. We observed whether the child acted with love or fear toward their parent. We made sure the parent did not do naughty things like make promises.
One day I sat in the observation room, bored.
I took notes dutifully and fought the urge to curl up on the floor of the dark room and take a nap. The family I was working with was in one room. The other room sat vacant with the light on. Then I got a little show.
A coworker was walking by the empty visitation room.
She saw that the light was on and came in to switch it off. Before she did that, however, she took the opportunity to check herself out in the mirror. Why is that we have such a hard time resisting this urge? We walk by a reflective window on a store front and sneak a glance at our sexy selves as if something had changed about our clothing choice since we got dressed that morning. Well, this coworker was in rare form. Not only did she do a little makeup check, she went straight for the girls. She reached into her bra and hoisted up one breast after the other to get them comfortably back in place. She straightened her plunging neckline and stood back to admire her handiwork. Then she spun on her heel, flipped the light switch off, and marched out the door, more confident that she had been just moments before.
I sat there in my dark little room in shock, mouth gaping, and tried not to burst out in laughter.
The walls were not sound proof. I was exasperated: how could she not know that people were on the other side of the mirror? What would I do now? Do I tell her? Oh magic mirror how you taunt me. Somehow I suspected this would not be the last fun to be had by the trusty magic mirror.
The business of saving children is hard.
It’s not clearcut and the stakes are VERY high. On the one hand, you want to save children from harm. On the other, separating children from their parents causes harm (usually). So who is the bad guy? As a child protection worker, you are overworked, underpaid, and doing one of the hardest jobs in the world. The parents hate you. The children hate you. The foster parents want more from you. The defense attorneys pick you apart. The cops get annoyed. Your boss wants more paperwork. And the list goes on.
But we don’t care. We are saving children (at least that’s the goal).
So we sit in the observation room and watch. And we determine whether the parent can handle being a parent. And when the hour is over, we watch as the children and the parents endure yet another separation. With them, we endure the uncertainty, the confusion, the sadness, the anger, and often the bleak reality of drug addiction where promises are never to be trusted. And we endure the meth mouth.
Enter gallows humor.
Google defines “gallows humor” as “grim and ironic humor in a desperate or hopeless situation.” I’ll tell you a secret: social workers are just as crass as cops. Somehow social workers have managed to keep this under wraps. Social workers have the reputation as the martyrs of the helping professions: selfless and exhausted, caring and gentle. That may be true, but it is also true that social workers are badasses: tough, hardened, brave, stubborn, outspoken, and crass. Definitely crass. So when one “Meth Mom” entered the visitation room, we had no idea it would brighten our day.
In case you are wondering, it is not PC or professional to call someone “Meth Mom.” BUT...
Remember the bleakness? The drug addiction? The false promises?
The meth mouth? That was the situation on this day. My coworker (we will call him Bo) sat, as I had on many occasions, observing the visitation between a mother with a meth addiction and her small children. Meth is nasty. It’s not the type of drug you EVER want to try. In case you were considering an experimentation with meth, DON’T DO IT! Okay, you probably were not considering it because you are probably a healthcare professional and I’m preaching to the choir. But that’s my PSA, just in case. Mostly, the terrible thing about meth is that it destroys your teeth. Okay fine, that’s probably not the worst effect, but I hate teeth. Don’t get me wrong, I love my teeth to be in good working condition, but I do not want to see anyone else’s teeth. I don’t want to peer into the mouth of a 5-year-old with a loose tooth. How gross is it to see that spinning tooth, dangling from a nasty piece of flesh?! Ew. Kids: please keep that to yourself. Yuck.
Okay back to the story. Bo the social worker had his sights set on a position over at Probation and Parole. He was really good at child protection work, but he had gone back to school after working as a mechanic and rancher specifically to be a probation officer. While our office had an 80% turnover rate, probation was fully staffed and the only time a position opened up was when someone was promoted or retired. Bo was stuck with us. As the only man in our half-staffed office, we were glad to have him. Even though the women of the office were tough, sometimes it just helps to have a big burly dude on your side when you have to confront another big burly dude (or a mentally unstable woman).
Bo was observing.
My guess is that he was like me: dutifully taking notes while pining for a nap. And then it happened: Meth Mom spotted the magic mirror. She carefully stepped over the array of colorful plastic blocks and her toddler, climbed up onto the couch that was positioned just below the mirror and got her face right up to the glass. She was inches from Bo’s face, separated only by the thin pane of reflective glass. She had forgotten that it was a magic mirror. Before Bo had a chance to realize what was happening, it was too late. Meth Mom opened her mouth. Wide. And then she jammed her finger to the back and dug around. He got a full, dentist-worthy view of her brown, decaying teeth and swollen gums.
Bo stumbled out the back door of the observation room and into the hallway, gagging and incoherently spewing curse words. The rest of us snapped into action: crisis is our expertise. We put our best concerned faces on and rushed over to see what happened. Did he need help? Were the kids okay? Was he having a medical emergency? Yes, yes, and no. Turns out, he was not having a medical emergency. But once he was able to sputter out the story, we started to laugh so hard we thought we might never stop. Quick! Get the office defibrillator! The social workers are going down.
Miraculously we all survived, even Bo.
The only side effect we suffered was the occasional uncontrollable giggle whenever we walked by the magic mirror. Not bad, considering.
End gallows humor.
As mentioned above, “Meth Mom” is a terrible thing to call someone. Meth mouth is not funny. The buttoned-up professional response to the situation is to offer resources, to help mom find a dentist who will donate their time, to help mom get help with her addiction. I’m sure Bo was trying to do all those professional things. But sometimes the bleakness of a situation can only be solved by seeing its absurdity. Without humor, we would melt into a pile of useless emotional mush. I never thought to ask Bo what he noted in his paperwork that day, but I’m sure when the defense attorney reads it, the humor will be lost.
Tell us your unprofessional gallows humor story!
(Be mindful of HIPAA, of course.)
Share with your friends. (You get more by sharing. Tell your inner pre-schooler.)
Leave comments. (This is your chance to connect with people who get you!)
Tell Jamie what compassion fatigue issues are nagging at you so she can write about them.
Listen to the Cared to Death Podcast on Mondays at 8 PM Mountain Time.